Virginia Woolf on the Path from Reading to Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from renowned English writer Virginia Woolf.

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Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25th, 1882 in Kensington, London. She was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household.

Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a notable historian, author, critic, and mountaineer. He was a founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a work that would influence Woolf’s later experimental biographies.

The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister, she quickly lost her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education

Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life, thought to have been what is now termed bipolar disorder. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, which is described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.

Woolf committed suicide by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.

“For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Every since I can remember I have loved books. I learned to read early and easily, and my comprehension levels were always well advanced for my age. Books felt to me what watching TV must feel like to other people. I was transported right into the action, the emotion, into whole different worlds with different ways of thinking and doing things. I felt most alive, most like I was becoming future myself when I was reading.

During my 6th grade year, I volunteered to work in my school for part of my lunch period. It was so quiet in there, and it smelled like books rather than sweaty kids like the rest of the building. My job was to put the returned books back on the right shelves, but most of the time I just walked the rows and ran my hands over the worn spines. I flipped through the ones with dragons or spaceships on the front and scoffed at the ones about cheerleaders and love.

The ones I took home I could never put down. I read in the dark after my mother insisted we go to be until she grew tired of trying to force me and asked that I only keep to my room and keep quiet.

My father and his father loved reading too, and I often stole books with subject matters much too advanced for me from their collections.

I loved reading so much, and then I became a teenager, and between the depression and trying to be cool, I forgot all about reading. Then I became an adult and life got too busy for books. At first, I was busy falling in love and making a home. Then I was busy fighting for love and always working harder to build a better and better home. And no matter what there never seemed to be enough time for love and home and work and friends and sleep and reading.

Things have changed. Reading has come back to me. I realized that I had let something I loved go and I wasn’t at all happier for it. I realized I wanted something for myself. I remembered how good it felt to learn things and see the world in new ways. I remembered how reading made me feel more like myself all those years ago. So, I went looking for my old friend, my first love, and I found that she had been waiting for me all along to return. We picked up right where we left off, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

I’ve also come back to writing, another old love from my childhood. I’ve come a long way since those old angsty journals, and I want to go further still, and I know that in order to get there I can never take reading or writing for granted again. I have to make them a priority in my life along with love and home and work and friends and sleep. With them, never behind. Not when I can find the time, but when I make the time!

I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago. If I had spent more time with books than I may be a better writer now, or at least a better person. But I am still grateful for the time I had, without having experienced the magic of words being worked on me I would never have craved such power myself, to wield over other minds and time itself.

I am grateful that books never leave you entirely and that reading is a patient and understanding friend who will let you leave and return as often as you wish. I have come back to my first love and friend, and I found that our passion for one another never really waned. I had only been a stupid human who forgot what life was really about, doing what makes you happy.

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Featured image via George Charles Beresford [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I’m new to Virginia Woolf, but I wish that I had begun reading her work years ago. Like Jane Austin I assumed that her writing was shallow, all romance, and marriage, and manners. I mean, all of that was covered in this book, but there was so much more. I was wrong, so very wrong, but I’m growing and learning like everyone else.

In Orlando: A Biography Woolf tells the story of a nobleman born in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He joins the queen’s court, becomes a favorite, falls in love with a princess, get his heartbroken, and all the while works at becoming a poet, but none of that compares to the adventure of his miraculous transformation. Orlando, at the age of 30 turns from Lord Orlando to Lady Orlando and lives for over 300 years more.

“For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

Obviously one of the major themes covered is gender and the ways gender shapes the way we act and the choices we make and the choices that are available to us. Surprisingly Woolf is critical of both men and women and our assumptions about the ways the other thinks. Men do not understand women, and women do not understand men because both refuse to believe that the other has the very same feelings, qualities, wants, and needs.

Another is time and change. Orlando lives a very long time and sees the world change around him and later her. Her inner world goes through many changes too, and he/she struggles to understand who she is and what she wants to be against the backdrop of “the times” which are always changing and seem always to be at odds with people living in them.

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

A lot of time is also spent on literature and the life of a writer. In the moments when mass production and critique was the focus of Orlando’s life, I had the feeling that I was reading an inside joke between Woolf and the writers of her time. I got the jest, but I’m hoping through further reading I can gain a deeper understanding of Woolf views on the subject.

Woolf covers all this as well as wealth and privilege, society, individuality, and, of course, love.

But the real interesting bit about this book is the dedication. Orlando has been called “the longest love letter in literature.” The character of Orlando was inspired by Woolf’s close friend and lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West. At the time of its writing, their affair was waning. Vita, the more adventurous and fickle of the two was moving on to other lovers.

In fact, many of the other characters were also pulled from real life as well, and I imagine I will be reading about Woolf’s personal history for a long while to come.

The style was a shock, at first. From the very beginning, it reads like an old fairytale. The language is flowery, complicated and hard to follow, at first. After a few chapters, it becomes beautiful and poetic, interesting and lively. There is a lot of description and not much dialogue, and sudden jumps through time, which can be hard on the brain too, but I promise it is well worth the effort to stick with it. I have never read anything quite like this.

I am afraid my little review here has done the book very little justice, and you’ll just have to read it for yourself to understand how amazing this story is. As for me, I am firmly a Virginia Woolf fan from here on out and have already picked up a copy of Mrs. Dalloway to read next.

“The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

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If you like this post heck out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Check out Vita Sackville-West on the necessity of writing and Virginia Woolf on space to spread the mind out in.

Featured image via Book Republic

Short and Sweet Reviews // My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I had never heard of Willa Cather before or any her books set in the harsh and fertile American plains of the 19th century, but I am glad I have now. I came across this one after winning a selection of vintage paperbacks from macrolit’s monthly Tumblr giveaways a few months ago and the journey, both through the book and in learning about who Willa Cather was, has been fascinating.

The cover and synopsis didn’t interest me much, and so I set it aside to read only when I had nothing else. I wish I had given it a better chance from the beginning because it proved to not only be well-written but relevant to our current political and culture climate surrounding immigration.

In My Antonia, considered to be Cather’s masterpiece, we follow Jim Burden through loosely told stories he has pieced together from his past. From a recently orphaned boy shipped from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents, pioneers in Nebraska. In looking back over his life in the country, he realizes everything he loved about that time and land have one thing in common: Antonia, the eldest daughter in a family of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new land and culture.  Jim and Antonia grow up always near one another, but their lives follow very different paths, separating and converging in often surprising ways.

I didn’t realize until after I had read the book that is was the third installment in the Great Plains Trilogy. I didn’t read the others, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything having skipped them.

Cather has a strong command of descriptive prose, and I really felt pulled into the time period and the place. I felt the harsh winters. I felt the warm summers. I felt the uncertainties for the future and the devotion to a way of life so different from my own. The story is a good one but the description, the way she pulls you in physically and emotionally, was genius.

The book did make me think a little about how the burden of immigration and of “differentness” has often fallen harder on the shoulders of women. In hard times women are expected to be women and to also be men. I would love to have heard the story from Antonia’s perspective, but I suppose this would have been a story with a very different message and focus.

As a woman, and as a person living in a time when there is so much ignorance surrounding immigrants and their lives, I think My Antonia has value today. Americans can never understand how hard it is to become an American, in heart and in culture, not just on paper. We can’t see the rocks and the hard places we put these people between with our judgment and ridicule.

I recommend My Antonia because it will make you think and because it is simply a lovely story. It is inspiring, and heart-wrenching, like all the best stories, are. If nothing else, I recommend it because it is a quick read and a piece of American history.

Short and Sweet Reviews // East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”

— Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16

I don’t believe in God, nor do I think that the Bible is an accurate account of history, but I have always found the myths and stories fascinating. They offer glimpses into the human condition, and I that is what has made them timeless and compelling.

Steinbeck taps into this timelessness with what he considered to be his magnum opus, East of Eden. In it, we follow the stories of two families who, with each generation, reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the deadly rivalry of Cain and Abel in the farmlands and small towns of California’s Salinas Valley in the early 1900s.

In reading Steinbeck’s take on humanity’s origin story and I took away a meaning I had never considered before, a lesson on love. Instead of getting hung up on why one brother is favored over the other—or why God rejected one offering over the other—Steinbeck focuses on what matters, the way it makes the brothers feel. The way it makes them feel is shitty, and the way it makes them act is crazy.

“..it’s awful not to be loved. It’s the worst thing in the world…It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel.”

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I did have some issues with the book. There were some ridiculous characters, if you read the book, you will know exactly who I am talking about, and there were parts that felt unnecessary and lectures that felt too long. The book was a long one, though, and most of it was well written and powerful.

Overall I enjoyed East of Eden, and I do recommend that everyone read it. It does have something interesting to say about how each of us is shaped by love and lack of love and how we can perpetuate a cruel cycle simply because we cannot believe there is another way to love than the way we have been taught.

I highly recommend the book to aspiring writers like myself for Steinbeck’s amazing ability to write descriptive text that is beautiful and efficient. Through his words, I could damn near feel that California heat and smell the rich California air. He wrote just enough about the period to transport me there without boring me. He puts you into the setting in a way that doesn’t give too much away but lets you know you are reading about a very real and very magical place.

If you’ve read East of Eden, please drop a note in the comments and let me—and the other readers—know what you thought.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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Featured image via Unsplash

Short and Sweet Reviews // Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Catch-22, first published in 1953, is a satirical novel set during World War II. In it, we meet Yossarian a U.S. Army bombardier desperately trying to finish his required number of missions so he can get back home. We see the war from his viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the other men in his squadron as they try to survive and makes sense of the war.

I’ll be honest; I had a hard time with this book.

Every character is insane. The timeline is nearly impossible to follow. I couldn’t keep the characters or rank straight. The dialog was often circular and frustrating. There was a ton of death and violence and more prostitutes than are ever necessary for any story. Through most of it, I couldn’t even figure out what the damn point was.

Then, somewhere in the middle, I realized that was the point!

After that I loved it. It was an awful story written in the most brilliant way.  It’s not just about how horrible war is. It is about the mental hoops we have to jump through to justify and survive a war. How we can keep waging it when we know the value of human life. It makes the connection between war and our collective insanity.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Reading this book wasn’t easy, but sometimes when something isn’t easy, it makes it all the more satisfying when you do accomplish it. Catch-22 made me think about war in a different way. It made me think about the pressure we place on soldiers to deny their most basic instinct, self-preservation. Is it right to do that? Who has the right to do that? And for how long do we ask people to live in a state of fear and forced courage before it starts to be a cruelty?

I highly recommend everyone at least attempt to read it. Only, when you do, don’t read it the way you do other books. You may have to fight with this one but just take your time and don’t give up. Don’t let the book defeat you. This book has some very important things to say, but it is the way they are said that is what sets this one apart. I’m glad I read it.

I think this one may have changed me.

I want to add that I think all writers should read this book. In my mind storytelling is something that is done neatly. A story must unfold in a straightforward and clear manner to be good. Catch-22 taught me that there was a different way to write. A story can be told in a sort of twisty-turny, jumpy, loopy, way and still be good if you do it right.

And Catch-22 definitely gets it right.

“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Short and Sweet Reviews // Paper Girls, Vol. 1

My name is Erin Tieng, I deliver newspapers, and…and my friends and I need help, please.

// Brian K. Vaughan, Paper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by the talented Brian K. Vaughan and beautifully illustrated by Cliff Chaing, Paper Girls follows four teenage girls as they set out to deliver newspaper very early one morning in the year 1988. These girls are just the kind you would expect to be out on their bikes in a predominately male occupation. They like video games, they smoke, they carry a hockey stick for protection, and they curse a lot.

Very quickly you realize that this is no ordinary morning. Strange things happen, aliens arrive, time travel ensures, a gun goes off once or twice, and these girls are caught up in the middle of it all.

“Turns out, the older you get… the more everything just turns to shit.

You girls are lucky you’ll never have to find that out. ”

// Brian K. Vaughan, Paper Girls, Vol. 1

I hadn’t heard of Paper Girls before I bought it. In fact, I was at the bookstore looking for a gift for someone else entirely when I saw it, just one copy on an endcap. I picked it up because of the beautiful cover art, and as I flipped through the pages, I was drawn to the incredible use of pastel colors throughout. It was a book about girls with a lot of girly colors, and yet, it didn’t feel “girly.”

I could tell from the scan that it contained a ton of bad language, aliens, and something about time travel—a few of my favorite things—and I knew I had to have it.

I can’t say that it was everything I hoped it would be. I am a big fan of Vaughan’s Saga series and to me, this was nowhere near as exciting or interesting as that. Then again I don’t think anything is, that series set the bar too high and has severely skewed my expectations.

What I will say is that Paper Girls has my attention. I love the small town, the late 80s setting, I liked the instant action, I liked the girl-centric theme, and I loved the artwork. I had a few gripes; the plot moved too fast at certain points, and I am a bit confused about a few things. My hope is that everything will be made clear in future volumes.

All in all, I was left feeling anxious to know what comes next, and I will definitely be picking up the next volume.

I encourage you to check it out too and if you do, or have, please, let me know what you thought of it :)

“…you girls… reminded us… of us…
…kids just trying… to make a living…
are always… the good guys…”

// Brian K. Vaughan, Paper Girls, Vol. 1

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The Novel is Dead, Long Live the Novel

“The novel’s not dead, it’s not even seriously injured”

Don DeLillo

There were rumors for a long time that physical books would soon be something of the past. Bookstores would go out of business and libraries would become extinct. Once books could be bought for cheap, and hundreds could be carried with you wherever you went no one would want to read those big, bulky things.

Everyone thought that was where we were headed. They were sure, 100% sure, that physical books were dying. My heart broke at the thought, but I looked to the future and tried to keep up with the wave of technology.

 I tried to read a few books on my iPad. I got through The Shining and On Writing by Stephen King on it; I tried a few classics too. I set up bookshelves and wishlists and tried to keep an open mind. I liked that I could highlight different passages in different colors, I liked that I could take notes, and I liked that I could easily read more than one book at a time. All the features were there, but the experience was somehow lacking.

Maybe it’s just me, but I cannot stand to read books on a screen.

“I need to experience books, not just read them.”

 Lauren Morrill, Meant to Be

The enjoyment of a book starts before you even buy it. There is no place like a bookstore or even a library. The atmosphere feels serious, focused, but not somber. The people are happy to be there. It’s a quiet joy. The joy of being among the words of so many writers. The joy of being among whole worlds and volumes of information. The awe of our ability to contain so much within the small space between cover and cover. The bookstore feels as close to a place of real magic as you can get.

You might be there for a specific book, or might be there because, like me, you go because you just like bookstores. You go because the world has overwhelmed you and you need a place where nothing is rushed, and there is no need to be “cool”. Here you can be you and spend hours among others who are into what you are. There is no subject not covered in a books store. I promise you there is something for everyone.

However, you got there, whatever you are there for, you have to take the time to take the place in. You have to walk up and down the aisles. You have to pick up a few books, leaf through the pages and read the back to find out what it’s about. You might find 3 or 5 that sound interesting. You will carry them through the store, and at some point you will stop and make the heartbreaking decisions about which ones you will have to leave behind. No matter what book you came for the book you buy will be the one that feels right.

You can’t find that with a list of books you scroll on a screen. You can’t feel the weight of the book. You don’t feel how much the pages and cover bend as you roll it. You can’t flip to a random page and read a little before you. You can’t flip to the back and read the last line. You can’t smell the pages.

After you browse and flip and browse some more, you will have to make a choice. You have fallen in love with them all. You either you break your own heart to leave them behind, or you decide you can’t handle that hurt, and you will buy them all. When you get them home you’ll find a safe place to put them, a place apart from the other book you have read and loved and put aside. They’ll be there until each has their time with you. Ultimately you’ll set them aside too. You won’t forget them. You’ll always love them, but you have to move on.

“Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

Stephen Fry

I don’t care what anyone says, you can’t feel that way about a book on a screen. You might feel something close, but it just isn’t the same. Even with all the bells and whistles, all the features and deals, you just can’t fall in love with that.

With some things, moving from analog to digital might perfect the product but for some things, the entire experience is wrapped up in the imperfections. Who hasn’t heard that the highest streaming quality from iTunes and Spotify doesn’t compare to the warm sound of vinyl? You can’t fall in love with a download file. You fall in love with album art. You put time into caring for it. You treat it with respect, and it becomes a sacred object. You show it off to your friends. You play it for people you love. You fall apart if it gets destroyed.

Books are the same.

They mean something. Every dog-eared page, every bend in the cover, every stain, and every note made in the margins is a physical memory and a point of pride. You loan it out to people you trust. You give and get them from the people you love. They are sacred objects.

“If the novel is dead, I’m a necrophiliac.”

Tiffany Madison

I buy big bulky books now, again. I shove them into pockets and let them weigh down my backpack. I dreamt to devouring them one after the other on my iPad, but I have been reminded it I better to devote a bit of my life to each one. Every book I own is a sacred object. I will browse my own bookshelves and flip through each, remembering what I liked and marking all the ways I caused damage by being careless. I arrange and rearrange them by size and set a few out to be loved again if I cannot find a new one or am struck by the urge to visit the past.

If some love to read from a screen, I guess I can’t judge. More reading, no matter what the delivery method, is always a good thing. You can still learn a lot and discover new places, people, and times by reading from a screen. You can still stimulate your brain and your heart too. I won’t deny that.

But you will never convince me that I will find everything there that I find in my physical books. No matter what features you add you will never convince me to leave them behind. They will always be a part of this world and if they aren’t I hope I’m not too.

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Written in response to The Daily Post’s Discover Challenge: Analog

Featured image via Unsplash